research and destroy new york city

“Forgiveness is the Last Vestige of a Vanishing God”

An Interview with Avital Ronell

Why don’t you tell me first what it is about forgiveness, the subject of forgiveness, that interests you and why you think it’s so popular now.

Popular? In what sense?

In terms of Oprah, national reconciliation, truth commissions, all this kind of stuff.

Absolutely. Well, I’ve worked very closely with Derrida; we taught a seminar on forgiveness at NYU in which we presented his work on forgiveness and we traced different trajectories.... Basically, forgiveness is at the core of all sorts of fundamental concepts and structures of our existence. There would be no history, or time, even, without forgiveness.

The scene of forgiveness is fundamentally one where someone is on their death bed and it’s a testamentary scene where they’re giving forgiveness. So it’s at the edge of life and death which is why it’s also very spiritual, very intense. It’s like a revelation or disclosure of an essential truth, and what awaits forgiveness. In some religions, or cults, or beliefs, you start out with the unattainability of forgiveness. You start out as a sinner and your whole life is composed of efforts to achieve this elusive thing called forgiveness.

The question is, has there ever been such a thing as forgiveness? What is its stature, its status as a thought? Can we even locate it? Is it a concept? And Derrida shows that it’s not. Is it an idea? It’s not merely an idea. Is it an act? It’s not an act, necessarily. So what is it first of all, that’s an essential question. What is forgiveness? Have we ever seen it? What are its qualities, or phenomenological attributes? How do we recognize it? Do we even know—even if we think we’ve forgiven someone, how do you know you’ve really forgiven them, given unconscious holding patterns, or withholding patterns? You might think you’ve forgiven someone but then somehow unconsciously you take a swipe at them a few months later, and so on and so forth.

So we asked all of the fundamental questions: what is forgiveness, who forgives, who has the right to forgive, how has history been premised on the very possibility, and impossibility, of forgiveness? To what extent is spirituality completely organized around this elusive paraconcept of forgiveness?

We start always with the basic saying: do we even know what forgiveness is? And why do we need it? Why is it something that’s part of so many different types of questions and lives? Why is it essential? We start by bringing the question mark to the table.

Do you reach answers to these questions?

We approach the possibilities and conditions of answering them, but by stripping down all of our certitudes and our sense of knowing what it is we’re talking about. We always start by showing how until now, everything we thought we could comfortably designate and recognize or identify as forgiveness doesn’t work.

So what do we have left? One example would be the syntax that we use, like, very regularly and customarily. “Forgive and forget.” If you forget, if that’s the condition of forgiveness, then you haven’t forgiven. Because if that’s the stipulation—to forget—then that’s not vibrant, real, essential forgiveness. So let’s forget about this. We have to look at what it means to forget about something that ought to be forgiven.

Derrida and I proceed by addressing a book—two books actually—by someone very important in France, Vladimir Jankélévitch, who wrote a first book saying, “Should the Germans be forgiven?” where he says, “Yeah, they should.” But then he wrote a second book retracting, saying, “Who am I to say the Germans should be forgiven?” He was wrong.

We work with this fundamental ambivalence, and this extreme case—it can’t be reduced to a case but let’s just provisionally call it a case—of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Can that kind of pernicious genocidal rage be forgiven? Who forgives whom? Who is in a position to forgive? Because one could say, “I can’t forgive in the name of a victim. Only the victim who’s gone can forgive.” So, when can it take place, under what conditions...these are some of the questions. And then Derrida—I’m now fast-forwarding—shows that only the unforgivable can be forgiven.

When you say that only the victim who’s gone can forgive—do you mean dead?

Yeah. There’s something called aporia, which is to say these paradoxical and contradictory snags that you hit. Forgiveness has an aporetic structure. There’s so many snags. We have to take them all into consideration before assuming that we know what it is to forgive or be forgiven or why we are driven toward forgiveness as a way of being.

If you are the beneficiary of forgiveness, let’s say, if you have any advantage or anything that accrues to you, such as healing...if you feel that it’s healing for you to forgive, or if you can derive any benefit whatsoever—in addition to the sheer and pure act of forgiveness—then it’s not forgiveness. You’re already strategizing.

It’s part of what we call the gift. Because a gift is something that doesn’t belong to any economy. If it’s an obligation, if it has exchange value, then it’s not a gift. If forgiveness allows you to benefit or profit in any way, it’s not pure forgiveness.

A lot of people now in the spiritual sectors of the bookstores urge forgiveness upon their readers, because it’ll help them heal. Well, if you’re seeking healing, which is very laudable, no one can contradict or oppose that. Everyone needs to be healed, no doubt. I’m not merely opposing that. But that’s not forgiveness. The minute there’s a reason besides its own necessity and velocities, it’s not forgiveness.

What is it? What is it called?

If it’s done in the service of something else, then it’s just a lever or something that you’re using in order to relieve a burden, a pressure on the soul or on the ego. It’s an egological thing. If you’re motored by some, “I need to feel better about life and myself so I’ll forgive my mother, who was horrible to me,” that’s not really forgiveness because it’s not addressed to her, it’s addressed to you and your needs. It’s still on the order of needs.

So can you talk a little about what pure forgiveness means, then?

I can point out all the problems first of all that we encounter when we think that pure forgiveness is dispersed somehow. For example, there’s a question of who is allowed to forgive whom. I mean if you say, if a subject says to another subject, “I forgive you,” that means that that person feels herself or himself to be in a superior position. There’s already the question of who can forgive whom. There’s all sorts of questions that show that we’re not even in a position to forgive.

For example, in terms of philosophical notions of the subject, and of history: Let’s say someone says, “I was a jerk. I want you to forgive me.” The person who’s presenting themselves at that point is no longer the jerk who is responsible for the wrongdoing. It’s someone else. There’s a self-splitting. There’s time, there’s a history, there’s a recognition that’s intervened, so that the person who’s asking for forgiveness is not identical with the person who did you harm. It’s someone who’s come to themselves, as we say, or collected themselves. This person is different. He or she differs from the person who was in a rage and did something—or even not in a rage, in a cold, sadistic way, perpetrated something. So the perp is not the same person as the one—even though it’s the same body and soul—who asks for forgiveness. So that’s a problem philosophically.

So are you still forgiving the person, or are you forgiving an act in the past?

That’s another question. Are you forgiving a person or are you forgiving an act? That’s very astute. That’s a question, too. What are you asked to forgive, what are you forgiving? What are you seeking when you seek forgiveness? Is it forgiveness of an act, of who you were in the past and of whom you’ve let go, or who you are now? There’s all of these questions that intervene into any kind of pure act of forgiveness. There’s all of these questions that indicate that we might be dealing with something that perpetually eludes us and that we can’t master at all, and that we’ve never actually experienced or seen.

Derrida always says, “if there’s such a thing.” “Forgiveness, if there’s such a thing.” Now, in English and in French, in forgiveness there’s embedded the word of the gift. “Give.” What are you giving, what’s the gift? The don in pardon, or the Spanish perdón. There’s something about the gift of forgiveness that we must try to analyze.

So a lot of questions are raised. Are there any assertions?

There are assertions that are carefully arrived at, with a sense of tentative anxiety around it, because until now forgiveness has been treated as something that we think we know, or that we think we’ve bestowed or received.

The very typical way of Derrida’s unfolding his argument and work is to show that everything that we thought was stable is in fact based on very questionable grounds. Eventually, he does arrive at what I was indicating because I fast-forwarded for purposes of time and to relieve the suspense that I’m sure we’re involved in here. But if you can imagine the unforgivable. Because he says there are different modalities of forgiveness, like “excuse me,” or “sorry.” By the way, in Germany now everyone says, “sorry!” I was just in Berlin. Those are different daily modalities of indicating some type of forgiveness.

Can you expand on that? What is that about? The German “sorry.”

Yeah, no, I’m trying to figure it out, too. Now they’ve taken the English and they all say, “sorry, sorry” all the time. But this has been happening a lot in the German language, that they have all sorts of English-American squatters, you know. But now “sorry” is the big one, the big signifier.

Can you talk about this...I don’t know, maybe you could call it a condition, the German condition, as people like to say? Where does this “sorry” originate? And how has it evolved in the German case?

That’s very interesting. I don’t know how—I mean, I have studied different levels of German...Germanicity, and certainly I’ve worked on the undead in German culture and history and literature and all sorts of dramas of forgiveness. I wouldn’t want to reduce anything—it’s a rich and traumatized history and this is a problem about history: if history is a history of trauma.

And then, how do we appropriate or understand it? Because trauma is what effaces the event. We don’t have a sense of what happened. When you’re traumatized, you have flashbacks. You don’t have a real memory of what happened.

Can you talk about this specifically, maybe in terms of the Holocaust?

One of the questions raised in terms of Jankélévitch work, when he retracts and says, “No, we can’t forgive the Germans.” He says, “They didn’t even ask for forgiveness.” Well, does the other have to ask for forgiveness in order to be forgiven? According to all sorts of ethical and other tracts, yeah, it seems as though the other does have to ask for forgiveness. But Derrida says, “No, it has to be given unconditionally and absolutely. It’s a gift, forgiveness.” So the other doesn’t even need to ask for forgiveness.

But to get back to the Shoah...I mean, this is a question also of inheritance, and now we’re talking to the great—almost the great-grandchildren of some of the perps and Nazis. By what transmission systems do the ghosts and fantasies and phantasms of Nazism travel through the children? There was also a whole generation without fathers because all the soldiers were wiped out. There’s a whole generation of people who still are receiving transmissions from their grandfathers and...when things were forbidden, like it’s forbidden to say “Heil Hitler” in Germany, it’s forbidden to brandish the swastika. What happens to those forbidden signifiers? And by what channels do atrocities travel? Especially when you have the situation where children are ashamed of their parents. How does that work? Does it work? Can one sustain that kind of national shame?

The explosion of terrorism in the late sixties and seventies in Germany was seen by many as a reaction to the earlier generation not owning up. So I guess sometimes it can explode in violence, it’s there.


So what is the second generation, the third generation, where are they in terms of forgiveness? How do they reconcile that?

Well, I think that it works very differently, and according to difficult trajectories. For example, a lot of people come to study with me at NYU, they’re German scholars, they know Hebrew, they’re working on theory, they’re working on all sorts of difficult and dense areas and texts and they’re very earnest and they also have a kind of disidentification with Germany. They are living in a very tense relation to Germany, to the United States, which is not looking that good, but with Obama that may change and loosen some of the grip of some sort of return of a certain kind of national culpability.

Reagan tried to do this to a certain extent in Bitburg in 1985. He sort of asked forgiveness on behalf of all the Jews in America, who were recent emigrés anyway. What was the effect of that? Was that successful, was that even close?

What do you mean he tried to ask forgiveness?

One of his speechwriters said that Reagan wanted to come to Bitburg and go to that specific cemetery to kind of forgive, to forgive the Germans for their role.

Okay, so that’s a very good and essential scene that we could look at. Because first of all, was it up to Reagan to forgive? In the name of whom? By what authority? By what—what kind of a gesture was it? It was a calamity in so many ways. Because very often those who urge forgiveness, or offer it, in a kind a way that squanders so many things, very often they’re just not authorized to offer forgiveness.

So, as with Reagan, he wanted to close the chapter—precipitously, perhaps. Was it up to him to say, “OK, let’s forget this part of history?” Was it up to him? What kind of arrogance does it imply if I were to go...let’s say I had some sort of symbolic authority to do so, and I were to go and forgive Southern racists for murdering black activists, or something. What kind of arrogance, what kind of a gesture is that? What kind of historical foreclosure am I enacting? Reagan, rather than closing a wound, reopened it and reinscribed it, and also showed a kind of disrespect for the complication, the difficulty, of even approaching such a possibility.

Obviously he wasn’t going to first deconstruct his gesture and say, “Now, what does it mean to offer forgiveness to this?” But it also insulted the Germans themselves. Because they don’t identify necessarily with their SS officers. So here’s another question: did they ask for this? Did it embarrass them? Whom was he addressing? What did he hope to resolve?

And what you always have in these scenes—whether or not they’re misguided, or simply stupid, or offensive—they’re trying to push history forward. So what we know is that forgiveness is a hinge, because there’s a massive blockage or blockade until something is forgiven. And that’s what Derrida focuses on: the relation to time and how time begins and ends with forgiveness. And maybe that’s what Reagan wanted, to monumentalize a new historical moment that would be tagged with his name. He’s closing the chapter and he’s opening a new one. We’re in a new era.

It was just a colossal blunder, I think. The Germans certainly did not benefit from that. It really embarrassed them as a people.

Did the West benefit?

That’s a very good question. Was there a kind of healing by forgiving an atrocity? When that atrocity was maybe precipitously forgiven, because you need infinite patience and understanding and hesitation—rigorous hesitation—before you close the book on anything.

There were all sorts of genocidal, transgenocidal, and partly disruptive histories that emerged shortly after that. So maybe it was closed too quickly. Maybe it created a space for other genocides. I don’t know. But I don’t see anything that it achieved that we could say or that we could evaluate as positive.

So we can’t push history, as you say. Does that mean forgiveness is something that just happens? Without any encouragement?

That’s the question. There’s a beautiful story by a great, great 19th century German writer, Heinrich von Kleist. In this story [“The Marquise von O”], it’s about an unforgivable act. A rape. The antagonist tries to get forgiveness throughout, and at the end of some torturous and ironic and important scenes, it’s said that he intuited that he was forgiven. He approaches the family that he degraded and harmed, and Kleist leaves it at that. There’s no absolute knowledge whether forgiveness had been issued, whether he was forgiven, if he will ever be forgiven. But he acted as if he had been forgiven.

Kant is the one who instigates the as if, and Derrida may or may not, I don’t remember, mobilize that in order to consider how one receives the gift of forgiveness. One might assume one is forgiven, or act as if one is forgiven, but without any certitude.

You know, because also, is forgiveness an absolute act? Does it have substance? Does it have the motors and energy to close a case? Or can it be partial? Can it be, “Okay, I forgive you now but tomorrow I’m gonna be pissed at you again. I can’t help it.” Or, “I thought I forgave you.” I mean, that happens, too. People think they’ve forgiven and then some resentment account opens up or starts up again. A day later, an hour later, a month later, you know.

A lot of people today believe that they’re forgiving other people. So are you making the assertion that they think they are, but they’re really not?

You can’t know for sure, ever. Yeah, I am making that assertion. That if forgiveness exists at all, it comes with no guarantees. Maybe it’s something you have to negotiate and renegotiate everyday. Have I been forgiven? How shall I act? In the Kleist story, the guy decides to act as if he’s been forgiven, but he has no sign that he could point to for confirmation. And that’s maybe the wisdom of some of these great religions that have also shown us their pernicious sides.

Maybe the struggle with forgiveness is one of our principle struggles, existentially. “I messed up, I did something horrible, how will I negotiate with this?” Rather than being known, forgiveness is something we can assume we know. We’re thrown into turbulence that we call forgiveness about which we know very little. It doesn’t have the status of something that is knowable.

So all these truth and reconciliation commissions, the aims of these international tribunals, that sort of thing, their aims aren’t toward real forgiveness?

I think that they aim honestly enough toward forgiveness but without really questioning forgiveness. Desmond Tutu said when he went to Ireland, when Ireland wanted to do a similar thing politically—to establish a truth and reconciliation tribunal—he said, “Don’t do it, it failed. It doesn’t work. We’re full of shit.” I mean, he was strong in his denunciation of what happened.

There was a woman, for example, who got up and said, “Who am I to forgive in the name of my tortured and deceased husband? I’m just—I can’t do it, I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I can’t. It’s not up to me. It would be like a criminal act if I were to forgive in his name.”

So if forgiveness were to take place—and that place is in question—how could it take place? It would have to be not by forgetting, not by all those splits we mentioned, but in the searing presence of the extreme harm that’s being done at that very moment when you’re being tortured, or screwed over, or really, really mangled. If you could forgive in the present of that moment, that might be forgiveness. But not afterwards, when things get hazy and repression sets in or the person splits off and says, “Gee, I was horrible to you, I was your torturer, but now I’m different.” Well, now if you’re different, I want to talk to the one who did the damage to me.

So if one could imagine being installed in the intense and searing presence of the harm that was done to one and had befallen one, then maybe forgiveness could happen. But not with a lag, or whatever happens when you try to smooth things over and repress and foreclose.

Imagine that you were the ghost of someone who had been really, severely maimed or something, and your relative is saying, “Yeah, I forgive you.” You might be very...rattled, so to speak, and start rattling your chains. So the question is even, who can forgive?

The great poet Heinrich Heine said, “It’s not in my job description to forgive, that’s why we have God. So that God can forgive, because I’m never forgiving. I’m so pissed off I’m just not going to forgive.” It may not be in the mortal’s job description to be able to forgive. We can fool ourselves, or we can make it a kind of for-profit organization, that I need to forgive if I’m to feel better about myself and get healthy. So it’s like a vitamin or something.

Is God not though a third party in this situation?

In what way?

In terms of...there’s the dyad of perpetrator and victim, but God is the one who forgives, ultimately, from the outside. Compared to a relative of the victim’s not the same operation?

That’s very interesting. And we would need years of Talmudic patience, maybe, to open that up. But for God to be God, we can’t bring her or him down to the level of the neighbor or the friend or the colleague. That is supposed to encompass all and transcend all, so that is immortal. And it might only be within the purview of the almighty, eternal, and great power of God to forgive. It may not be within our power, Heine is suggesting. Maybe we just can’t.

And as we imitate what we’ve projected onto this entity and master-signifier called God, it may be that we try to emulate and imitate and take examples—for example, the great philosopher Levinas said, “God is all-powerful, he doesn’t need to take a day off, so why does he declare a day of rest? He’s not tired. He never tires.” So his answer was, teaching some kids at the services, he was teaching them, “So why do you think God says he takes a day off, even though he doesn’t need it? To set an example, so that everyone has a sabbath, or a Sunday, a day of quiet and rest and self-gathering.”

So one could say that this thing called God exercises forgiveness as an example and wants us to try it out, but perhaps we can’t do it. We can try, and we’re struggling with it all the time, and you’re doing an interview about it, but the whole point is that we’re asking questions about forgiveness precisely because we can’t do it. If we could do it, it wouldn’t be an issue.

If forgiveness were to be given, all history would stop, and there wouldn’t be this incessant repetition, compulsion, of the repeat of things.

Scientists have talked about forgiveness aiding our survival, as humans, as a civilization, as a society. Is what they’re talking about not forgiveness?

It’s evolutionary tactics or strategy. It’s wise, it’s judicious, it’s a good idea, but it’s not forgiveness. It’s something that will...endorphinate the species. It’ll get you high, and get you to get over the more trippy and pernicious problems, or to clear abysses. Yeah, it’s a great idea to forgive and not to beat the crap out of everyone and not to self destruct.

It’s probably—we don’t even know, you know, we haven’t asked more Freudian questions about where you would locate forgiveness. Is it an affect? Is it a feeling? Is it an act? Is it a mood? What is it even?

Scientists are right, it lightens us up somehow. What kind of a drug is it? Is it ecstacy, is it amphetamines, does it speed stuff up, you know? We could ask, what kind of a narcotic is forgiveness? That’s a Nietzschean and Marxian question. You know, religion being the opiate. Nietzsche always looks to see what kind of drugs we are taking, and why do we have to “drop” forgiveness, for example. It’s part of the rhetoric of drugs for Nietzche. What kind of a narcotic is forgiveness that it helps our survival?

Freud would identify with that too, right?

I think so.

Can you speak more about the Freudian aspect of forgiveness that’s often overlooked?

That’s an excellent question: where forgiveness would be located within the psychoanalytic corpus. If I went to Melanie Klein, in terms of my internal search engine, she wrote a very important book called Envy and Gratitude. She shows how such attitudes and moods as envy destroy us, as subjects and as a people, as a species, and how we pollute what she calls the good object or the good breast that feeds us, that nurtures us, with envy. With a kind of economy, a restricted economy of resentment and anger.

By the way, Nietzche discovered the trope of resentment as something that’s very...probably the opposite of forgiveness. That you resent and you won’t let go, you won’t forgive it like you forgive a debt.

In any case, in Freud—meaning Melanie Klein in this case—gratitude and forgiveness and opening one’s heart space would be the positionality of the healing subject. It would be very important. But she has two fundamental positions that we’re in. The first is persecutory. Even the breast has to be negotiated by a little infant because it looks like a persecution, a thing that is, Woody Allen-style, coming down the pipe to suffocate you.

But the good news and the healing news is when you shift from the schizoid persecutory position to the depressive position. And that might be something like forgiveness in Melanie Klein, where you’re kind of letting go, and depressive, and attuned to your finitude in a way. This is all very complicated but it’s something I would investigate, you know, if I had time. I think you’re absolutely right to point us in that direction.

I guess to simplify all this...would forgiveness be equivalent to repression?

Yes, absolutely. You’re right. It would have to be. However, if it’s repression, again, one would have to say that it’s not forgiveness. Because it has to be present, it has to be unrepressed. But you’re absolutely right. In the lines we’re pursuing now, along these lines, forgiveness and repression would be twin concepts. You’re absolutely right.

Keeping with this thread, can you talk a little about how trauma fits into this equation? Your work focuses on trauma and violence...trauma zones, trauma-free zones. Can you talk about that in more...accessible terms? If you can?

But what is the question? How does this...

Well...people today tend to quantify trauma, in a way. You know, rape is one thing, murder, robbery, there’s different degrees of crimes or traumas that are put up for forgiveness, eligible for forgiveness, and that require different amounts of effort to cope with and work through. Something about that, if it’s applicable.

Oh, it’s definitely—and if it’s not applicable that’s where we hit another snag. Because to the extent that forgiveness involves and requires memory of what has happened, trauma messes that up in a way. It disturbs what we think are the conditions that would enable forgiveness.

Trauma is, if one can say “is,” but I’m trying to make this accessible, as you say, as if my language is not I have to forgive you. When traumatic things occur, everything gets disturbed. Our memory, our sense of what happened, our sense of reality. Like, “Is this really happening to me?” That’s one of the traumatic utterances. “I can’t believe this is real.” “Is this really happening?” These are the questions and utterances that accompany trauma. “Is this happening?”

And then there’s also the problem of how trauma is recalled. Because we go into a different kind of memory bank. We have flashbacks. We have the intrusive phenomena of things that will reactivate the trauma, but only in partial ways. We don’t have access precisely. It’s inaccessible. Almost as inaccessible as my language. But it is inaccessible. I’m just being wicked.

I know. Is it inaccessible even when it’s happening?

Trauma kind of obliterates at least part of—and this is what also saves the person, if you can practice what Nietzsche calls Russian fatalism, which is to say, to drop into the snow and wait until something horrible is over. Just freeze. And then unthaw when things are over. What happens is that you’ve been able to protect yourself by blocking out and blurring a terrible, inassimilable reality.

To the extent that you survive the trauma, and you’ve protected yourself in some ways...we know about such phenomena as multiple personalities, and other ways of defending the ego and the subject. All of that is based on forgetting what happened. Or not having a full-on disclosure, which could annihilate you.

So if forgiveness depends on remembering everything, then is it even appropriate to place trauma and forgiveness together? Can you make them talk to each other? Can it happen? Can you forgive something that you weren’t present for? Because when you are totally traumatized, you blank out, you black out, you go into a kind of place that one doesn’t have access to consciously. So can you forgive something that went to an unconscious and subterranean pocket of your existence, or being, or memory? That’s a question. What are the requirements for forgiveness to take place?

If it’s memory of an event, like, you know, I often say—and people laugh or they’re mad, depending on the relationship that’s being shaken up a little—I say, “Listen, I totally forgive you, I don’t even remember what we’re fighting about.” That pisses people off. They want to be forgiven for something. Because it’s an irony, too: “I forgive you for something I don’t remember.” In order for me to be forgiven or forgive, it’s a stipulation that I remember what we’re talking about or what happened.

This would be one of the problems of trauma: that traumatic invasion of the subject reroutes memory. Splits it, fragments it, undermines it. And we have a different relation to what—how to narrate. This is why the outrage occurs, but it’s not something that is outside of the problem of people saying, “Well, she’s making it up.” Because the nature of trauma is that you’re left to pick up the pieces and reconstitute a narrative. So there’s always the possibility of some sort of fictional—or testimonial, let’s say—exaggeration or warp.

In the South African truth commission, it was revealed later that a considerable portion of the testimony was false.


What would compel someone to do that?

Or, is it in the nature of testimony, which is not the same as truth. Testimony is different from truth, and testimony by nature is a subjective narrativization of an event that may not be able to be told, even though it must be told. I’m not trying to be funny or cute here. I’m just saying, when they said “false,” it may be in the nature of testimony that some things, some edges get falsified, because it’s by nature a story. It’s involved in fiction and the rhetoric of fiction.

You’ve said that the way we deal with forgiveness is often through stories, through fiction, as you say.

And narrative, yeah.

So do victims’ testimonies function in the same way?

Testimonies are prey to and parasited by the same problems that any narrative fiction is involved in. We have to take that into account. That there may be something truer than the truth that the testimony testifies to. We have to be willing to make very radical statements about the nature of testimony. If you testify to God, God’s existence—that means that you can’t establish it or prove it as truth. It’s actually always involved in some of the aspects and qualities of fiction.

But one has to be very sophisticated and careful and open-hearted to say, “Aha! She said it’s always a lie!” No, but have we thought about perjury and the lie, and what a narrative involves and implies, and what forgiveness—maybe forgiveness is a lie. Maybe out of the goodness of your heart you’re going to posit forgiveness so that the other can just move on, quote-unquote, and thrive, and let go of whatever. Maybe that’s the power that’s vested in someone who’s about to die. “I forgive you.” It’s a fiction, but it’s something that says, “I’m about to die and you should live. I’m asking you to live.”

What does it even mean or how do we read the utterance, “I forgive you?” Is it another way, a stronger way of saying, “I love you?” Is it a way of bequeathing something that we can barely offer, a transcendental gift certificate of some sort? Why is someone at the edge of one’s existence impelled to forgive, even? What is that about? If we could be more patient, more honoring of the mystery of forgiveness, I think we would find all sorts of edges and problems and conflict areas and contested statements that would enrich us, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. Why do we need the fiction of forgiveness?

Is it a way—like in movies, books, testimony—is it a way of making it concrete? Evoking it, so it’s something we can look at, or try to grasp or gesture at? And is that also a function of these types of intellectual questions about forgiveness? If it’s not something that we can grasp, if it’s a lie, is this a way to make it real?

Is what a way to make it real?

All the discourse on it.

You know, it is real. It is real, but it may not exist. It’s real to the extent that language has the power to posit. This is what’s fascinating about it. It has real effects. If it helps in the survival of the species then it’s real enough. If it makes you feel better about yourself, it’s real enough.

This is where psychoanalysis comes in, because it says that language really hits you in your body, in your orifices. It’s very powerful, it can heal you. If you’re a hysteric—and most people are—the right word can straighten you out, so to speak, and cure you. So it’s very real, but it may not exist.

Just as if you say—and this is another abyss—”Do you really love me? How do I know you really love me?” “Well, I said I love you.” “Well, can you say it again?” It’s all about offering language. If there’s something behind it or not, it’s not something we can know. But the power of that language still has its own history and its own unfolding.

So it’s possible that it’s all just tactical.

Unconsciously. I’m not saying that anyone’s even in control of it. The question is why. Why we need so much forgiveness, and why we need to live with it even if it’s impossible. And we’ve never done it or seen it or received it. Why are we attached to it? Even in the most non-clinging spiritual teachings, forgiveness is untouchable. It’s that important.

It’s become really important in contemporary times, though. How would you explain that?

It’s the last vestige of a vanishing God. It’s what we’ve got left. It’s the only thing we’ve got, in some way. Our species has committed just too many crimes against anything that we could agree upon as being sacred. Too many crimes, too many hideous offenses, too much harm has been done. And we do need something like forgiveness.

Or, we need to struggle with its absence. And not move on. And just stay with the pain that has been created and that we have to own up to being part of and responsible for.